Physics 3333 / CFB 3333 The Patent Office

The U.S. Patent Office

You can patent that?

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is responsible for protecting inventions and trademarks in the U.S.

One important note: the fact that a patent is issued for an invention does NOT necessarily mean that the invention will actually WORK! Many inventions look fine on paper but in fact will run afoul of universal physical laws.

Prof. Scalise brought some of the "counterfeit detecting" pens, which contain nothing more than an iodine solution. The premise of this is the basic iodine-starch reaction, which produces a black color. Writing and copy papers contain starch to make them crisp and smooth, so making a mark on this kind of paper with the pen will leave a dark black mark. U.S. currency does not contain any starch, so the mark from the pen remains yellowish.

The fallacy here is the assumption that counterfeiters are dumb enough to buy the cheapest paper available to make their product, and the pen will detect this cheap, starch-bearing paper. Real counterfeiters, however, are not so stupid. They all likely know about these pens and how they work, and therefore will take care to use paper that does not contain starch. They can afford to spend some money on the paper; after all, the markup on the product is HUGE!

Prof. Scalise distributed some currency - $300 bills to be specific. Phoney as they come, but they did have his picture on them! We tried testing them with the counterfeit detecting pens, and this phoney stuff PASSED! The pens did not detect it. Why? They were made with newsprint, which does not contain starch.

The verdict: those counterfeit-detection pens WILL detect the cheapest counterfeits. That is some measure of protection for merchants. The pens will not detect high-grade counterfeits.

Looking at patents can be amusing - or astounding - or disgusting. Here is the web site for the Patent Office. It is a useful resource.

We found a small number of interesting patents you could look at. Go to the USPTO site, select a search of patents, then choose patent number search.

About that last one - yes, it's a real U.S. patent. Go figure.

Some of these things are funny, but remember that it's your tax money at work here. Scientific American magazine has a monthly feature called "Staking Claims", which delves into squirrely inventions.

Here are some links to compilations of goofy patents. It's hard to figure how some of these things got patented.

You can find more if you look.

Video: James Randi from "The Search for the Chimera" SMU Collegium da Vinci talk (0:22:45)

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